Perhaps Ecclesiastes isn't meant to be understood.

Tue, 09/09/2014 - 13:29 -- James Oakley

This week, I'm wrestling with the book of Ecclesiastes, in preparation for preaching on chapter 12 this coming Sunday.

It's hard work. It appears to be a book that doesn't want to be understood. Many writers have tried to pin down its structure, but beyond the observation that there are two writers in the book (1:1-2 and 12:9-12 being the overall author, who quotes "the teacher" in 1:3-12:8), everyone comes up with something different. More to the point: What's it saying? It appears to be saying that life has no meaning, life goes around in circles dishing up trouble as it goes, and then death cuts off any meaning you think you may have found. What's a book like that doing in the Bible?

It's tempting to despair of the book. You end up wanting to give up, concluding that the book (like life) has no meaning. It goes round and round in circles. So where is the reader (or the preacher) to begin? How do you get a key, to hear what the book is saying?

Maybe that's the point. Maybe it's not meant to be understood.

Now, please don't misunderstand me! (See what I did there?) It's fashionable, in some circles, to argue that every text cannot be understood. There's no such thing as a text's meaning - it's asking the wrong question. I'm not buying into all of that. I'm not even arguing it's true of Ecclesiastes. Of course communication is possible. Otherwise, there'd be no point my writing this. You wouldn't understand it - it wouldn't even have a point to be understood.

No - my point is this: Texts don't just speak to us. They act on us. The form of Ecclesiastes matches its message. Life is not a neat package that can be summarised on a postcard. That is particularly the case if you try to live your life "under the sun" - as though what you see and grasp is all there is to life. Any attempt to think you've mastered life will slip through your fingers.

I can write that. It's neat, and it's a short paragraph. But to really convey that, to engage with the whole person I'm talking to, a neat and tidy piece of writing is not what I need. I need something that makes you frustrated because it doesn't quite make sense. I need the book of Ecclesiastes.

The book of Ecclesiastes is not meant to be understood. That's not to say it doesn't say anything. It's not to say it has no meaning. But it's aim is not that we understand it, but that we feel its impact.

Exactly what that impact is ... I'm still working on that. I have some thoughts, and all being well they'll be more shaped up on Sunday than they are now! I may even post again as my thinking becomes sharper.

But if you study (all or part of) Ecclesiastes, and come away saying: "That's good - I've got that", then you probably haven't. If you come away saying: "There's lots here that doesn't make sense, doesn't quite fit - but the gospel of Christ has transformed me through the time I've spent wrestling with it", then that's a really good thing indeed.

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Vance's picture
Submitted by Vance on

You are correct that most will leave the book of Ecclesiastes without understanding its message. A large part of this problem is that the translations, books and sermons about the book for the past thousand years have so badly muddied the water that it is almost impossible to read the book without all that baggage swirling about in your head. Kohelet's words have been so badly used and abused that few will ever have the time or energy to dig past all the traditions to uncover what lies beneath.

I have been working with Kohelet for 30 years and have recently translated the book and now travel about performing the text while cooking an eastern meal. Each time I have performed people come up in amazement and tell me this is the first time they understood what Kohelet was saying and yet I have done nothing to the text, just recited it. The problem is not with the book of Ecclesiastes, its with all the rehtoric that has buried the text and made it inaccessible. 

Vance -

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